Life lessons: community service can help control crime

A young man has been sentenced to clean the streets for reckless driving. Can community service succeed in sending a strong message to the youth of the UAE?

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The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has issued its first community-­service sentence to a young man for reckless driving, hitting a pedestrian by accident and putting the lives of bystanders in danger. This sentence was in line with a recent update to the UAE’s federal penal code. No specifics were given regarding the length of this specific sentence, but according to high-­level details regarding community service, it will now be used to punish certain offences for no less than six months. Recent community-service sentences in other emirates ranged from one to three months.

Personally, I think this sends a strong message to the youth and community. When the department went public with this specific case, it showed pictures of the young man dressed in his overalls, one portrait shot and one of him working. Given the fact that the last time I saw pictures of people sentenced for crimes was when I was in high school – when they used to publish photographs in the newspaper of men who were harassing women in public places – this is a big deal.

The news of a community-­service sentence is refreshing; it’s the introduction of a middle ground, without which jail time was the default punishment. Jail time, however, could worsen a person’s attitude towards the law and living a productive life. Imagine a petty offender, such as someone who drove recklessly, in prison alongside hardened criminals, where he or she is in a dangerous environment. It is likely that they will be overwhelmed and perhaps even drawn to that lifestyle.

It is said that boredom is the devil’s playground. I think there is some correlation between the fact that this young man was unemployed and that he ended up driving recklessly in public. So what would sending him to jail do?

When he comes out, he will have a criminal record, not be able to get a job, not be able to get financial help from a bank, not be eligible for benefits, and, in our culture, have a hard time finding a woman whose father will give him her hand.

So what is he to do? Well, he would need to survive, and, unfortunately, in that situation, a life of crime can seem like the only thing that will pay the bills.

In a report by the Office of Justice Programs in the United States, it was found that the rate of recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend upon being release from prison, was highest among those arrested for non-violent offences (82 per cent repeat rate), such a property crimes, shoplifting and motor theft; or public-­order crimes, such as gambling or driving under the influence (74 per cent).

I share these statistics not to say the every non-violent crime should be treated with community service, but that other options of discipline and correction should be available when prison isn’t the best solution.

In this case the man was unemployed; through this community service, he is getting a “job”: cleaning the streets. It’s unpaid, but it’s still work that requires him to fulfil certain duties for a certain period of time. This teaches him the importance of responsibility and the value of hard work.

More essentially, and I think we are now getting to the heart of the matter, it shows him the impact he can have on the community; at the end of every day, he can look back on the clean street and know that he is responsible for how it looks.

Furthermore, his work could show him that, regardless of how he feels about himself, his life means something, he serves a purpose that can help, and is helping, others. The goal is for him not to feel like a criminal, but to understand and acknowledge that he made a mistake, and that with enough of an effort he can make a fresh start and focus on the future again.

The key word in community service is “community”. I think, above all, what is important for offenders who are sentenced with community service is to believe that they are still part of the wider community, that they are not alone. That is what makes this move so powerful.

Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.

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